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Physicians, lawyers call on BC to investigate thousands of Heat Dome injuries

Thursday, July 29, 2021

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) & səl̓ilwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Territories/VANCOUVER – The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and West Coast Environmental Law Association today warned that BC’s recent Heat Dome may have caused an estimated five to six thousand heat-related injuries.

While the Coroners Service is currently investigating almost 600 possible heat-related deaths, the groups cautioned that BC’s health system is not tracking or learning from heat-related morbidity to inform the urgent measures needed to protect British Columbians from heat stroke, dehydration and other serious heat-related health impacts. The people who suffered these types of impacts are victims of the world’s fossil fuel economy, with climate change bringing more serious and frequent heat waves, including an expected heat wave in the coming days.

“For every person who died from the Heat Dome, ten or more may have suffered heat stroke, dehydration or other complications, including permanent, life-altering injuries. Just like our planet, the human body is designed to operate safely in a narrow temperature range – and when we heat up too much, even by just 2 to 3 degrees, we lose our ability to cope,” said Dr. Melissa Lem. “I saw more patients with heat illness during June’s extreme heat than I have in my entire career. Physicians need direction from the Province on how to track these injuries.”

West Coast Environmental Law contacted the Province’s Health Authorities, the Office of the Provincial Health Officer and the Provincial Health Services Association. Of these, only Vancouver Coastal Health indicated they were studying injuries from the heat wave. The others either indicated that no data was available, or did not reply to phone calls and emails.

“The BC Government needs to step up, to learn from injuries suffered in the Heat Dome and do a better job of protecting British Columbians,” said Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law. “The Province must tell physicians and Health Authorities to start tracking heat-related injuries and develop plans to ensure that our health systems and other institutions can keep us safe from future heat waves. We need to start educating British Columbians on how to cope with extreme heat, especially in regions such as the Lower Mainland and coast that have less experience with heat waves and many vulnerable residents.”

West Coast Communications Specialist, Julia Kidder, experienced the risks of extreme heat first hand, suffering a heat-related brain injury that she is, thankfully, recovering from.

“I did not recognize the disorientation, auditory hallucinations and numbness that I was experiencing as heat stroke, until I passed out,” she said. “And even then, I did not realize that the heat could be causing serious damage to my brain. I am so lucky that my cousin recognized the symptoms and got me the help I needed. I can only imagine how this might have affected a more vulnerable person.”

CAPE and West Coast call on the BC government to immediately:

  • Provide direction to Health Authorities and physicians on how to track heat-related injuries;
  • Initiate an investigation into the health impacts of the Heat Dome with an aim to identifying public health measures to protect British Columbians from future heat waves, ways to support those suffering from heat injuries, and the health system resource needs associated with heat waves;
  • Increase public education – especially in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Regions, which suffered the highest numbers of heat-related deaths – on how to recognize and treat heat stroke, dehydration and other heat-related injuries.

Almost 80 per cent of heat-related deaths (and presumably a similar rate of non-fatal injuries) during the Heat Dome occurred in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, despite higher temperatures occurring in the interior. CAPE and West Coast based their estimate of five to six thousand heat-related injuries on the relationship between heat deaths and injuries in the Province’s 2019 Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment.

The Heat Dome and associated deaths and injuries are a direct result of global fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis. A recent study by the World Weather Attribution Group found that the Heat Dome was at least 2°C hotter and 150 times more likely as a result of climate change. The group also found that similarly extreme heat events are expected to occur every 5 to 10 years by 2050.

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For more information, please contact:

Andrew Gage | Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law
250-412-9784, agage@wcel.org

Pamela Daoust | National Communications Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
514-267-2589, pamela@cape.ca

Julia Kidder | Communications Specialist, West Coast Environmental Law
604-736-6567, jkidder@wcel.org